Ever since the agitation pertaining to the minimum wage hike, Bangladesh readymade garment sector had not witnessed any major labour movement.
However, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there have been reports of sporadic incidents of labour unrest coming in from different parts of Bangladesh at various points in time. The supply chain disruptions, store closures, mass order cancellations and lockdowns that followed the breakout of the pandemic had an adverse impact on the country’s garment workers amidst reports of mass workers’ retrenchment.
With the fear of losing jobs and to demand pending dues, workers have been hitting the streets on and off since the last few months, and the latest in this direction has been the recent incident in which at least 10 people, including pedestrians and garment workers, were injured after the workers of Diganta Sweaters allegedly vandalised a manufacturing unit in Najore area of Gazipur, held a sit-in protest blocking the Dhaka-Tangail highway and damaged vehicles on 28 October.
As per media reports, agitated workers of the sweater factory in Gazipur blocked the Dhaka-Tangail highway after vandalising another factory protesting factory closure and ‘termination’ of fellow workers. Several factories in the area have subsequently closed due to the unrest.
According to police and agitated workers, the workers of the factory have been demonstrating for the past few days fearing job loss after the factory authorities terminated some workers citing lack of orders. “The workers reached an agreement with the factory authorities in the presence of the police. But the workers found their machines vandalised when they went to the factory for work the next morning. Tensions flared again amongst the workers at the news that the factory authorities vandalised the machines to frame the workers and prepare a case against them. The workers came to the streets in a procession and observed a sit-in protest by blocking the highway,” stated a worker of the concerned factory who alleged that the factory authorities earlier put up a notice at the entrance of the factory, with the announcement of factory closure and layoff.
“The workers will receive their due payments a day after completion of their scheduled tasks. The work orders will be available on 26 December. Then everyone will be called back to work,” reportedly read the notice which further added that as per the labour law, the workers will be paid on 25 November and 27 December during the holidays and the workers will get their ID cards back while joining work after the holidays.
“Everyone is guaranteed to join the work when the factory opens. The list of names and card numbers of the workers will be submitted to the Department of Factory and Establishment Inspection (DIFE),” the notice further added.
The labour-related issues in the country seemed to have worsened lately even as the garment sector workers’ representative resigned from the tripartite committee formed to review labour rules alleging that the Government was protecting the interest of owners in the amendments and ignoring the workers’ proposals.
IndustriALL Bangladesh Council, at a press conference held at the capital’s National Press Club recently, alleged that its RMG representative in the tripartite committee to review the labour rules Salauddin Shapon resigned as he was not invited to the last three committee meetings.
The Labour Ministry Additional Secretary and Committee Head Rezaul Haque – the labour and employment ministry formed the 10-member tripartite committee on 19 March last year, including three workers’ representatives and representatives of the Government and owners –ruled out the allegation made by the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council and said that all members of the committee had been invited to all the meetings.
“We have records in our files. IndustriALL Bangladesh Council representatives have been invited through notices and emails to attend the meeting,” underlined Rezaul Haque.
Meanwhile the leaders of the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council said that keeping the workers’ representative away from the activities was nothing but a plot of the Government and factory owners to undermine the rights of the country’s 4.5 million garment workers further through a unilateral revision of the labour rules. They expressed their concerns as the Government allegedly rushed to make amendments to the labour rules without taking the proposals of the workers into account and called upon the Government not to go for one-sided decisions in amending the labour rules.
“If the Government goes for unilateral amendments to the labour rules, the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council would announce tougher movements and at the same time, the issue would be raised at international forums,” said IndustriALL Bangladesh Council Vice-President Salauddin Shapon while reading out a written speech at the press conference.
The Government always claims that it is worker-friendly but the latest move of the Labour Ministry to keep the workers’ representative away from labour rules amendment process proves that in the issue of business, the Government and factory owners are united, he stated.
The IndustriALL Bangladesh Council also alleged that the workers were always repressed as the Government and factory owners worked jointly to deprive the labourers of their rights. IndustriALL Bangladesh Council President Badruddoza Nijam termed the Labour Ministry a ‘guardian-less ministry’ and said that the State Minister to the ministry had done no work for the betterment of the country’s workers and had failed to show any patriotism.
He also termed the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments and the Department of Labour under the Labour Ministry the ‘most corrupt departments’ in the country while informing the State Minister to the ministry that it would be difficult to tackle the workers if they bypassed the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions and went for one-sided amendments to the labour rules.
Former IndustriALL Bangladesh Council President Amirul Haque Amin, its General Secretary Kamrul Hasan and former General Secretaries Towhidur Rahman and China Rahman were present, amongst others, at the press meet.
Report hints at increase in workers’ lay-off
Meanwhile, a recent ILO report underlined that 43 per cent garment factories were running with half the workforce while adding that worker lay-offs and dismissals have increased sharply even as garment manufacturing units that have reopened are often operating at reduced workforce.
With demand for clothing products declining due to the coronavirus pandemic, about 43 per cent of suppliers in Bangladesh have been operating with less than 50 per cent of their pre-pandemic workforce in the third quarter of this year, the ILO maintained.
Titled The Supply Chain Ripple Effect: How Covid-19 is Affecting Garment Workers and Factories in Asia and the Pacific, the ILO study found that the pandemic has hit the garment sector in the Asia-Pacific region hard, with plummeting retail sales in key export markets affecting workers and enterprises throughout supply chains in the region.
“Factories operational at the start of the third quarter of 2020 – whether they had remained operational throughout or reopened – were reportedly not operating at their pre-pandemic capacity. Approximately 43 per cent of suppliers in Bangladesh are operating with less than 50 per cent of their pre-pandemic workforce,” said the report while adding that only 3.9 per cent of suppliers retained their entire workforce.
The largest proportion of suppliers (around 20 per cent) are operating with around 30-39 per cent of the number of workers they had before the pandemic, it added while on the other hand, as of July, the average number of workers returning to work after reopening was 57 per cent of the factories’ pre-pandemic total workforce and a total of 230,749 workers amongst Better Work Bangladesh’s (BWB) member factories were still not working as factories re-opened, the report said.
Currently, 260 RMG factories are connected with BWB.
“The COVID-19 has had a massive impact on the garment industry at every level. It is vital that Governments, workers, employers and other industry stakeholders, work together to navigate these unprecedented conditions and help forge a more human-centred future for the industry,” said Chihoko Asada Miyakawa, ILO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.
To tackle the COVID-19 crisis, the ILO has proposed a policy framework focusing on stimulating the economy and employment, supporting enterprises, jobs and incomes, protecting workers in the workplace. It also called for resource mobilisation to safeguard jobs and livelihoods, including those in the garment sector.
Continued support for enterprises, as well as the extension of social protection to all, is key to mitigate adverse impacts of the crisis in the garment supply chain, the ILO suggested, adding, it was time to rethink about garment supply chains, equality, inclusivity and sustainability.
Government initiates steps to amend labour laws
Meanwhile, the Labour Ministry said it has taken steps to amend the country’s Labour Act in-line with expectations from the European Union.
It may be mentioned here that if EU’s expectations are not addressed, it might cost Bangladesh its entitlements under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme. Following a monitoring mission last year, the EU outlined concerns and suggested actions to improve labour rights in the Southeast Asian nation. Its main qualms related to freedom of association and rights to collective bargaining in the country, issues the Ministry of Labour has reassured it will address.
Separately, the Government in another move, has recently provided Taka 1.82 crore assistance to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) to give the money to the family members of 91 RMG workers who died in different factories.
The Labour and Employment Ministry provided the assistance from its central fund. State Minister for Labour and Employment Munnujan Sufian handed over a cheque of the amount to a BGMEA representative at the 13th meeting of the central fund held recently.
Labour and Employment Secretary KM Abdus Salam, central fund Director General Md. Amir Hossain, BGMEA Secretary Commodore (Retd.) Mahammad Abdur Razzaque, board member of the fund Sirajul Islam Rony and Joint General Secretary of Mohila Sramik League, Syeda Khairun Nahar Tamrin, amongst others, joined the meeting.
Unemployment crisis deepens in September
Unemployment in the garment sector deepened in September after touching its lowest point in August, raising questions about job security in the industry amidst the risk of a potential second wave of coronavirus infections.
About 8 per cent of garment workers reported that they were unemployed in September, up from 5 per cent the previous month, according to a study conducted by the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) in association with Microfinance Opportunities (MFO).
The results of the survey, carried out amongst 1,300 garment workers, were released at a webinar recently.
The study found that the percentage of workers that were subject to factory closures, leave without pay, suspension, underemployment or lay-offs was 21 per cent in May. “Although the problems slowly declined over June, July and August, we saw an uptick in September,” said Guy Stuart, Executive Director of MFO, a global non-profit committed to understanding the economic realities of low-income and marginalised people.
Stuart raised questions over the state of job security in the apparel industry for the next few months and what policies or programmes would be needed to mitigate the potential loss of employment.
“Due to the pandemic, there are reasons to be concerned about employment and food security in the garment sector,” he said in a press release.
Dr. Rubana Huq, President of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said the rise in exports — which eventually led to an increase in working hours —observed in June-July is solely due to shipments of unexported orders from previous months. However, she said there is uncertainty regarding the future in the context of second wave coronavirus infections.
In other words, it is the situation in the future that will determine the employment situation in the garment sector, Dr. Rubana said in the press release.
Meanwhile, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity, Kalpona Akter, said many workers received delayed payments in March and April. Besides, many factory owners did not provide full bonus to their workers while many others faced lay-offs. And due to the lay-offs, the workload on the remaining garment workers increased, she said.
“Moreover, in case of a second wave of COVID-19 in the importing countries, the livelihood of the garment workers will be heavily impacted,” Akter added while underlining that therefore, it is urgent to develop a back-up plan for the garment sector to safeguard the workers from a potential second wave.
So, even as the labour issues in Bangladesh’s RMG sector may appear simple in plain sight, they are much more complicated and have various angles which need concerted efforts by all the stakeholders.